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Sweep them Up. No you sweep up the lizards

Another success on the field trip front. After a couple of days of persistent rain, a trip to an arboretum seemed foolhardy to say the least. As it happened last Thursday was a roaster. This was great for two reasons: firstly for my tan and, secondly because it meant that all the kids wore amazing sun visors (more commonly sported on ajummas.)

For the first time we were all on one big bus together. Unfortunately this meant that I was subjected to 40 minutes of classic pop songs whose tunes had been re imagined by tone-deaf Korean Children (I was never a massive fan of Abba’s Dancing Queen but I’ll be happy if I never have to hear it again). It was cute for all of 23 seconds.

After a quick guided tour of the arboretum itself, we were taken into a covered animal enclosure where we were introduced to a parrot who I taught to say ‘sausages’. Shortly after we were let into the reptile enclosure, which made me a little nervous since I am a little scared of snakes.

Good Job it's in a cage

Still all the snakes were safely locked away in their cages, and there was no chance of them being brought out with little children around, right? Right?? Korea

Well yes there was actually. The guide fished out a yellow snake (I think it was a corn snake, although I don’t remember exactly) and duly asked who wanted to hold it. To my surprise most of the kids did. The snake was draped around their necks and I was forced to crouch next to them for a photo whilst maintaining a brave face.


Hilariously, even though some of the kids didn’t want a snaked hanging off their necks, their mothers had requested that the do so, something which produced a few tears.

This kid was not happy about the situation

Afterwards we were introduced to some cool lizards and a gecko. And after lunch and a quick run around we were back on the bus, where a jolly good nap was had by all (myself included).

Out llke a Light

Hooray! A thoroughly enjoyable field trip at last. We went back to the petting zoo which we tried to go to last month, only this time it wasn’t raining and there were actually animals there.

After yesterday’s miserable excuse for Spring weather, today was gloriously warm and sunny. The petting zoo, although small, was surprisingly filled with a good array of animals. Asides from the expected cows, donkeys, sheep, goats and rabbits, there were also monkeys, badgers, some interesting birds, some extremely cute deer and a magnificent if slightly revolting turkey.

AS far as I could tell, many of the kids had been here before, so I was probably the most excited one of us there.

For obvious reasons many of the animals were off limits in a petty capacity, but the goats and sheep were quite happy to be petted even if the kids were too scared/disgusted by the ddong.

The high-point was definitely the abrupt lesson given to the children about the birds and the bees by a couple of goats.

Check out the gobblers on that!

After a nice stroll though some of the rest of the park, we headed home. Definitely the best field trip so far.

The birds and the...goats

This bird was really cool. If anyone knows what it is, let me know

I have been learning Korean for around a year now and I just wanted to share some of the things that I found to be easy, and also some of the things that made me want to stand around a nice little grammar-book bonfire with hatred in my eyes.

(For the record I am no expert on either Korean or English grammar and the points made below are based on my own experience of Korean. Please feel free to correct any mistakes that I have made about the technicalities of either language. Don’t bother if it’s just a spelling mistake, I’m just too lazy to use spell check right now)

Hurray! Korean is Easy!

1. Simple Conjugation

One major advantage of learning Korean as opposed to some other languages is that the verbs conjugate in the same way regardless of the Verb’s subject. This makes learning a new tense a matter of moments rather than much, much longer.

2. Phonetic Alphabet and not silly little pictures

Hangeul looks confusing if you are unfamiliar with it, but unlike mandarin Chinese, the symbols are actually composed of distinct characters that effectively function the same way as the letters do in English. The only difference is that the words are formed in blocks, often in two layers. Even though this is tricky at first, it’s not so bad once you learn that each block of letters counts as one syllable.

What is particularly ingenious about Hangeul is that it was originally designed by Kind Sejong (of 100 won coin fame) so that the characters represent the shape of the mouth and the tongue movements when voicing the character in question. For example, the ‘m’ character is a square ‘ᄆ’, and the ‘n’ character is  ‘ᄂ‘ which mimics movement of your tongue as you voice it. Sejong originally used this technique so that uneducated peasants would be able to read and write, however it did prove useful for me when I was learning the alphabet. When the characters were first put into use it was said that “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”. It took me 2 months of on and off study to master the alphabet, so I’m not sure what that makes me, but anyhow, it’s certainly not as hard as it looks.

There is a good book called Yes! You can Learn Korean Language Structure in 40 minutes which proved to be very useful although temporally, slightly inaccurate.

3. The Lack of Irregulars

My memories of learning GCSE French at school are marred partly my teacher Mme Staten’s armpit hair, and partly by the relentless study of irregular verbs. Even in Italian, which has far fewer irregulars than French, was I frustrated by this seemingly thankless task.

Happily then, Korean has very few irregulars. There are a few, but in my (admittedly limited experience) they seem to still operate within some kind of logical system. The main benefit of this is, I think, that of a greater confidence in application. As with the simple conjugation, I am always fairly certain that I am getting it right, purely because it’s much harder to get it wrong than in other languages. This means that I don’t catch myself worrying about whether or not I got it right, a situation which would inevitably lead me to over think the problem and thus get it wrong.

Booooooo! Korean is hard!

1. Korean is a Codified Language

You know what I said, like 5 minutes ago, about how Korean is easy because the conjugations are a piece of cake? Well the downside is that the verbs do change, but not based of the person, but based on to whom you are speaking.

I’m sure that you would speak differently to a child than you would if you were reading the news or speaking to your parents, but this would presumably manifest itself in terms of the register of language you used and only minimally in your application of verbal grammar.

Not so in Korean. Because Korean culture is so centred on the respect of position in society , the language follows suit. Thus speaking in what is usually termed “informal polite language” to your boss would be considered a great disrespect. As far as I can remember them, the codes of language are (roughly) as follows

-Informal – Speaking to children, close friends and family members of the same age. Or sometimes just someone who is younger than you.

-Informal Polite – Used in general conversation with people around the same age and social position, or with acquiesces who you don’t know too well.

-Polite – Used to speak to bosses, elder family members etc

-Formal – used when speaking on TV, by people in the customer service industry, and generally when really trying to show respect to someone.

Generally when you start learning Korean you will learn the Informal polite because as a westerner it’s the easiest and the most applicable to anyone you will meet. The problem with Formal language is that when it is used in shops and restaurants, it can be difficult to understand because it is less commonly learnt than the informal polite. The other problem I have found is that there seem to be no text-books which teach the informal, impolite language. This is particularly frustrating to a teacher of young children, although granted in that line of work you only have to listen to pick it up.

Supposedly Korean’s themselves have problems using these different levels of speech, and it is common to ask someone’s age much earlier in the process of meeting them than in the West, just so that they know which form of language to use.

2. Sentence Markers

Korean as a language seems generally much more efficient and much less convoluted than English. One thing that is tricky about forming sentences in Korean is the use of what are known as “Sentence Markers”. These are short words which add no extra meaning to the sentence, except to denote different parts of it. There are subject markers, object markers, topic markers, place markers and time makers to name just a few.

Whilst some of these are fairly straight forward and are very helpful when reading Korean, I found it really tricky to remember to use them when I was speaking it, and even am still sometimes confused as to which marker to use.

As a small example, the word ”I” can be said as “Na Nun”, “Jeo Nun” and “Nae ga” (“nun” and “ga” being the markers for topic and subjecdt respectively) and I still haven’t been able to ascertain from anyone which should be used in which context. I would go into more detail about them now, but I seem to have mislaid my Korean grammar book, so maybe that can be a fascinating treat for another time.

3. Learning Vocabulary

When I was friends with a French guy a couple of years ago, I found that despite my meagre French ability, I was usually able to blag not knowing a word simply by saying an English word in a comically stereotypical French accent. This was possible because French and English share many words, and if the words aren’t exactly the same, the at least share a common Latinate root, thus making it easier to memorise them.

The Korean language, whilst borrowing a fair few English words (usually for things and products), does not share any root language with English. This makes learning Korean vocabulary an arduous task.

I find the only way to learn a new Korean word (if I don’t want to sit on the bus and repeat it to myself 400 times like some crazed old drunk with a grudge, and believe me I have done this) is to link the sounds, however intangibly and improbably to English words and names by way of a powerful image.

For example, today I learnt the Korean word for “anxiety” which is roughly Romanised as “ggok Jjeong”. The image I created for myself was of Gok Wan (the TV personality who tells woman that they look bad naked) being threatened with torture by Jim Jong-Il and consequently being anxious about his predicament. This is a particularly tenuous example, but it’s really not all that anomalous.

Of course, without a decent vocabulary you can still be understood, but it’s a different story when being spoken to. Sadly I’ve realised that to have any chance at good Korean conversation I’ll probably have to just tough it out.

In April 2009 plans were set in motion by the Korean government to implement a 10 pm curfew on hagwon opening hours. This was a reaction to the rising cost of private academy education in Korea. The news this week was that these plans are being met with stiff resistance from all sides and will be scrapped if the majority of hagwons fail to enforce them by June of this year. (

Regardless of the financial impact that a curfew would have on a hagwon, keeping kids at school until late in the evening seems not only cruel, but ineffective. Hagwons are private academies that students attend after regular school, usually for 2-3 hours. However, some students attend not only English hagwons, but also hagwons for other subjects such as maths, science and social studies.

In real terms this means that a high-school student might start school at 9am and, depending on how many hagwons they attend, not be done with the day’s learning until 1 am the following morning (albeit with breaks for food and homework and maybe a little r and r). Oh, and this happens every day. Often including Saturdays.

In fairness to the students, they mostly show an admirable degree of commitment and energy at all times, but surely this workload must get to them. At my old school, I often found that by my last classes of the day (at around 8.30) the students were understandably uncooperative and it was not uncommon to find them slumped on their desks in their meagre 5 minute break time.

It seems fairly obvious to me that there’ll be detrimental effects on learning ability if you force students to work that hard. Studies have shown that the average academic attention span of a teenager is around 40 minutes. Even though Korean students are socially conditioned into working these long hours, it’s hard to imagine even half of the things they’re taught sticking in their minds. This becomes particularly true when you take into account that the primary style of learning in Korea is rote. If more of the classes were based on an immersive, practical application of English I would not mind quite so much. But the fact of the matter is, the students are mostly being smacked repeatedly into a wall made from grammar and vocabulary.

I imagine that even someone with a strong intrinsic motivation to learn a language would be turned off by this approach. The best way to learn a language, as with anything, surely comes from a passion for it. What then of the students whose only motivation to learn English comes from being forced to be there? What damage could this approach do to the gusto with which students study English, and by extension, other subjects?

Koreans of all ages work hard (more than any other country), but surely the time to enjoy yourself is when you are young. It seems to me that a little less time spent studying and a little more time spent relaxing would do good not only to the mental well being of the students, but to their prospects of actually learning something useful.

Today I went on my first field trip. It was…a little underwhelming. Me and three Korean teachers took around 30 kids to SK park in Ulsan where there is a butterfly sanctuary, an insect museum and a petting zoo.

We climbed into the minibuses at around 10 and I was shocked to notice that they didn’t have seatbelts. The kids were left to stand up on the seats and generally muck about which seemed insane given that a) Korean drivers are scary, and b) we’re in Korea. After we (safely) arrived, we whizzed around the butterfly sanctuary (within which we saw exactly one butterfly) and then headed over to the marginally more exciting insect exhibition (at one point I had to stop a student from crushing a beetle with her fist).

After that we made our way to the petting zoo, which unless it contained invisible animals, appeared to be closed for the winter. At which point it began to rain. This brought an immediate cessation to the day’s activities as we headed back to school almost immediately.

That said it was a fun experience. The kids were very well behaved (apart from one girl who almost gave me a heart attack my pretending to eat a marble). And on the Brightside, I got to have a 2 and a half hour lunch break. I wonder where we’ll travel to next month on the Wonderland magical mystery tourbus….